Beyond the UN: The conflict mediators who go where others fear to tread

4 min

Geneva (AFP)

David Gorman knew early on he wanted to help resolve conflicts and make peace, but he was wary of becoming a diplomat tethered to the interests of a single country.

Instead, he entered an expanding sector of non-governmental organisations and independent actors serving as peace mediators around the world.

"If you are not attached to a government, you can be impartial, you don't have to subscribe to a certain policy view," said Gorman, regional director for Eurasia at the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD).

"You are more independent, and you can be more creative," the 50-year-old, one of nearly 60 peace mediators at HD, told AFP.

With the United Nations often restrained by competing interests and many governments treading cautiously, independent actors are increasingly taking over.

There are cases where you realise that "the UN can't do this, states can't do this, they need something else", Gorman said.

- 'Like a laboratory' -

As a teenager growing up in an Irish-Catholic family in the US city of Boston in the 1970s, Gorman was keenly aware of conflicts in Northern Ireland, as well as in the Middle East, and the 1979 Iran hostage situation.

He said he realised early on that "grave misunderstandings" could lead to "unnecessary conflict" and had a "sense it did not have to be this way".

After training as a mediator in Washington, he went on his first mission to Israel at just 24.

He has been globe-trotting from conflict to conflict ever since and joined the HD Centre in its infancy two decades ago.

The centre has been involved in mediating around 40 conflicts and while most of its work is behind the scenes it has several significant public wins.

Two years ago, HD's small headquarters in an idyllic park on the shores of Lake Geneva was the scene of the official disbanding of Basque separatist group ETA after nearly six decades of armed struggle.

HD mediators had been quietly working on resolving the conflict for 15 years before finally acknowledging their role and declaring success.

Gorman said the public triumph was important to demonstrate "that these types of processes can work".

And yet, before a process reaches the final stage, the greatest value HD mediators add is discretion, he said.

Mediators unattached to a specific policy agenda or the UN can host informal discussions between people who might not be ready to acknowledge publicly they are in contact.

"It can almost be like a kind of laboratory," Gorman said.

But HD and its peers are considered "weak mediators" as they have less leverage than someone with the weight of a state or the UN behind them.

They can also face greater suspicions of being spies.

"People wonder what your motive is here, your agenda for getting involved in a conflict," Gorman said.

- 'The long haul' -

HD receives funds from the likes of the European Union, Norway, Germany and Switzerland, but none from the United States or other countries that might have an interest in the conflicts it mediates.

"So much of this is about credibility, and if we lose credibility, we lose that trust with the parties then our whole edifice comes crashing down," Gorman said.

Since joining HD, he has been involved in mediating around 20 different conflicts -- including in the Philippines, Myanmar, Libya, Sierra Leone and Myanmar.

When he begins a project, he is often signing up for years of following an ever-shifting situation, often in dangerous settings.

Currently, he has a hand in mediation efforts in 10 situations, including the conflict in Ukraine.

"We are not in a diplomatic posting where we do it for four years and then we are out. We are in it for the long haul," he said.

Carving out some private space can be difficult in this line of work. Gorman travels every week but tries to spend weekends with his wife and three children at their home on Cyprus.

For the children, "conflict is about their problems with their siblings or their parents, which I don't get involved in mediating because I am a party to those," he said.

- 'Handing the baton' -

Gorman and other independent mediators can spend years quietly doing the groundwork for peace talks only to have more official teams steer the process across the finish line and take the credit.

The first project Gorman worked on with HD was the drawn-out conflict between the Indonesian government and Aceh separatists.

After years of work, HD stepped back and the Finland-based Crisis Management Initiative (CMI) secured a final peace agreement in 2004.

CMI's founder, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, won the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize in part for his efforts in Indonesia.

Gorman acknowledged it was sometimes frustrating "if you do all the work and someone else ... gets the medal".

But, he said, mediation work is about "handing the baton".

"It is like a puzzle," he said, adding that he sometimes tells himself he may not have crossed the finish line, "but I did get that key middle piece there that was critical to the success of the process".

"That feels good."